We just returned home from a ten-day journey that took us through eight states. With our Suburban packed with suitcases, sleeping bags, a couple of cots, two guitars and an amp, some snacks, a few electronics, my four boys, and my two teenage nephews, we headed west to Wilderness Ranch, a Young Life backpacking camp in the San Juan mountain range in Colorado.
This is the same camp where we ate fish eyes last year. http://wp.me/p7fl9-d3
Thankfully, I didn’t have to eat fish eyes to prove anything to my sons. Instead, I tried to show them love by playing frisbee golf with them. Confession: I hate frisbee golf. Hate-as-in-I-would-rather-eat-fish-eyes-HATE. Wilderness Ranch has a crazy frisbee golf course- up and down mountain sides and through thorn bushes. Around an outhouse and close to a lake. I am disastrously horrible. My fingers get caught underneath the frisbee. I let go too early or too late. I hit windows. I scare young children. While my boys get par or close to par on most “holes,” I stop counting once I have 10 over par. It’s THAT bad.
Somehow, I only had to play a portion of one game because they soon made friends with other families at base camp who actually like playing frisbee golf. I was off the hook. I found other ways to spend time with my boys, like the incredibly competitive game of four-square, canoeing, hiking and day trips to waterfalls and the Rio Grande river to hunt for amethyst, which we happened to discover near an old mining town.
One of the greatest experiences about being at Wilderness Ranch is the community. Last year we made friends with several families from Tulsa, Oklahoma, with whom we reconnected this year for 4th of July games, a pizza picnic and fireworks. Unfortunately, they had been at the Ranch the week before us this year so our time together was limited to the 4th. Yet, in the one day we had with them, our kids played as if they had never been apart. I received bear hugs from the other adults and instead of asking each other the surface questions, they went straight for the things that matter, and asked how I had handled being a single mom this year.
I lamented over our inability to share the same week at the Ranch until I met Ryan, Betsy, and their three beautiful children. From the time Ryan and his young son joined us at the four-square court, I could tell we would hit it off. Ryan immediately engaged with my boys and nephews, as he encouraged his 6-year-old son in the game, teaching him the rules along the way.
Over the course of the next few days, I heard chapters in the story of Betsy and Ryan. I made fast friends with their middle daughter and eventually won over the heart of their youngest as well. I was in heaven as these two little blond-headed girls climbed on my lap or asked me to carry them. Betsy and I stole moments in between pushing our kids on the swings or roasting marshmallows to share our journeys. She told me that when she looks at me she sees joy but there’s also a sorrow in my transparency. She read me well. It was a difficult week of grieving my lost marriage again as I had plenty of solitude and time to journal and pray. Her humble and gentle spirit allowed me the freedom to share some of my heartaches and struggles. I could see the pain reflecting back in her loving eyes.
Yet, there was incredible joy as I watched my boys thrive in a place where they were able to explore freely and feel the love of the staff and other families. Ryan taught Asher how to fly fish. He helped Noah fix one of his guitars. He played four-square over and over. And commandeered a canoe full of boys. It may have seemed like small deposits but the payoffs were huge.
Before we left the ranch last Saturday morning, Betsy, Ryan and their three children walked over to our cabin to say goodbye. Betsy handed me a card and with tears in both of our eyes, we embraced. I felt like I was leaving a lifelong friend. I turned to Ryan and felt my heart breaking as I held him tight. I could barely look at their son and two daughters as I said goodbye to their precious little faces. As we drove down the rocky mountain road, out of the ranch, I had to fight back the sobs I felt coming from the depth of my soul. I wish there were stronger words for what I was feeling but all I can say is – my heart hurt.
Before we got into the car, Betsy and Ryan told me they loved me. It seems ludicrous that after only one week with this family we could be exchanging “I love yous” with such heartfelt affection. But that is what God does at Wilderness Ranch… and in the midst of the wilderness. Not only did he provide what I needed – playful moments with my boys, sweet sleep and safe adventure – He gave me what I longed for – unlimited beauty, encouraging community and life-giving connection. Just as I was tempted to think I was alone and would feel that painful loneliness in the midst of a camp full of families with intact marriages, he used that very thing – a sweet family from Michigan – to awaken my soul once more.
I love you more than you know, Betsy, Ryan and kids!